Merle Phillips takes in $120,261 as retired legislator
Eight years ago, Capitol activist Eric Epstein started tracking the impact of the infamous legislative pay raise on the lawmakers who voted for it and kept the initial salary bump despite the repeal of the pay raise several months later following a public outcry.
Epstein, cofounder of Rock The Capital, has released annual reports at the anniversary of the midnight hour July 7, 2005 vote that approved the pay raise.
This year, Epstein broadened his focus to include the impact of the 2001 law that boosted the pensions for lawmakers by 50 percent and state employees and school district employees by 25 percent. This law remains on the books and is viewed as one of the reasons, along with large investment losses of 2008 and Baby Boomers retiring, for the massive public pension debt facing Pennsylvania.
"These two episodes will continue to haunt taxpayers for a long time to come," said Epstein. "The financial impact of the pay raise will melt away in time. The financial impact of the pension vote is intergenerational."
Epstein has pursued his quarry - the lawmakers in office at the time - with the persistence of Captain Ahab stalking Moby Dick.
State taxpayers still feel the impact of the pay raise because lawmakers who didn't return the initial salary bump and retired or were defeated got a pension bounce, he said.
The pension vote of May 8, 2001, went largely unnoticed and didn't spark the public outcry of the pay raise. But Epstein considers it a precursor of the pay raise vote.
Those lawmakers who voted for the pension boost a dozen years ago enjoy lucrative pensions. They have a defined-benefit pension plan based on salary, years of service and their own contributions, something disappearing in the private sector.
A lawmaker elected before 2010 and reaching age 50 with at least three years experience qualifies for a full pension without an early retirement reduction.
A state pension law enacted in 2010 cut pension benefits for lawmakers elected since. They have to rack up more years of state service to be vested in a pension and contribute more of their income to cover any investment loses than lawmakers elected prior to 2010.
Based on right-to-know requests he filed with SERS, Epstein has published a list of the top annual pension collectors in the House and Senate. They include several former Northeast Pennsylvania lawmakers.
The top five in the House are former Reps. Frank Oliver, D-Philadelphia, $286,118; Merle Phillips, R-Northumberland, $120,261; Bruce Smith, R-York, $83,087; George Hasay, R-Luzerne, $79,049; and Mario Civera, R-Delaware, $73,275. (Robert Belfanti is a ways down the list at $53,105.)
In the Senate, the list includes former Sens. Raphael Musto, D-Luzerne, $127,033; Allen Kukovich, D-Westmoreland, $98,951; Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair, $90,934; Roger Madigan, R-Bradford; $88,023 and Richard Tilghman, R-Montgomery, $86,586.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)